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Archive for October, 2009

I was considering posting another Completely Random Crap Teaser today, but then Cindy Pon brought up the movie Bright Star, which she saw recently.  That got me thinking of John Keats, dead so young, and that in turn made me think about the very idea of my Random Crap folder, from which spring all these Random Crap Teasers.

Negative Capability

Negative Capability

Keats was the one who put forth the idea of Negative Capability, which entails people being able to accept and embrace the fact that not everything can be resolved.  The ability to exist comfortably in the presence of uncertainty and the unknowable.

That is at the heart of my Random Crap folder.  It is a collection of ideas that bows before  pragmatic reality: they cannot all be written.  When I put a story file into the Random Crap folder, I acknowledge that in all likelihood I will never finish it.  For every idea plucked out of the folder and written to some form of completion, another dozen have crawled into that dark cavern to languish, perhaps never to see the light of day again.

I am okay with that.  It’s the nature of writing.  If I dropped dead today, killed by boredom at a departmental meeting, I would never get to work on those ideas.  I would never do final revisions on THIRTEEN.  I would never finish a first draft of HORNBEAM.  I would never find out why Axyl Witt has a daughter named Ninja.

Are you okay with that?  When you read my Random Crap Teasers, does it trouble you to know that they’re scraps of some larger work that only exists in my brain?  Do you lie awake at night worrying about the stories in your Random Crap folder?  Do you try to imagine what would happen if you died before finishing your magnum opus?

Keats opined that a person who possessed Negative Capability was a “Man of Achievement,” but I suspect it’s just a matter of type.  There are people who require resolution and people who don’t.  Some people are okay with books that end uncertainly.  Others prefer that all the questions be tied up in the last chapter.  Different genres even cater to that dichotomy.  Those who like all the ends tied up perhaps prefer murder mysteries and romances.  Those of us who don’t perhaps prefer literary or oddball books not easily classified.

As for the writers who die before they complete the next book in a series, you can find a glaring absence of Negative Capability in the people they leave behind.  Robert Jordan, JRR Tolkien, and Douglas Adams have all been raised from the dead to assuage the readers who don’t hold with Negative Capability. (And more likely to satisfy the publishers who own the rights.)

As for me, I would have to decline.  Even if offered a posthumous sequel to such beloved and ambiguously-ended books as Invisible Man and Maurice, I would prefer to embrace my Negative Capability.

How about you?

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More random crap! This is the opening to a spec fic piece that has dogged me for a while, but never completely taken form.

***

Dr. Brouse said, “Don’t bring any baggage.”  At first I took it as a metaphor, but it’s literal, too. My luggage is a six-inch cubed, padded steel shipping case.  It looks like it’s made of a shiny metal quilt and it smells of industrial newness.

New everything, starting tomorrow at 6 am.

That’s only eight hours away and I’m already down to the bare minimum.  I’ve given away my furniture, books, dishes, stereo, computer.  Everything that’s worth anything.  I’m down to the clothes on my back, plus one last clean set, two boxes of sentimental crap, a sleeping bag, and a container of yogurt in the fridge.  If I can keep it down, I plan to eat that before AIF picks me up in the morning.

Baggage

Baggage

The steel case sits in the middle of the empty living room next to the boxes.  I look through the photo albums, trying to decide what to put in the case.  Mom and Dad and Ryan and I at Yellowstone, with a geyser blowing smoke against a cloudless blue sky behind us.  Chipmunks, lots of pictures of chipmunks from our trip to Yellowstone.  Studio portraits that make my family look like victims of a Sears catalog fashion crime spree.  I settle on the picture from my sixth grade year, before Ryan and I turned into sullen teenagers, but after Mom stopped wearing that goofy blond wig.  I also pick out a couple of Polaroids, even though they’re already fading from a lack of fix stop.  For all I know, when I open the box in five years, I’ll just have ghost pictures.  That’s all they are now, I guess.

I spend some time crying.  I’m not even sure for what.  I’m not really leaving anything behind.  I have some friends, some of whom might be sad when they don’t hear from me, when I literally drop off the face of the earth.  That said, nobody’s going to break down crying when I don’t show up.

I manage a nap, almost two hours, and wake up scared of the dark like I haven’t been since I was a kid.  I go around the apartment, turning all the lights on, wishing it were morning already.  Wishing I weren’t alone.  Wishing it weren’t too late and too forbidden to go out to a bar and bring home a stranger, but it is.  The bars are all closed and it’s against official protocol to risk that exposure before stasis.

Looking through the boxes, I settle on the obvious: my mother and father’s wedding rings.  I used to think I would get married and wear my mother’s ring, but now it’s just something to rattle around in a box for five years.  There are also bronzed baby booties, but there’s only room in the case for one.  I pick Ryan’s.  Even though it’s a little dirty, I take off the t-shirt I’m wearing and wrap the bootie and the rings in it.  I close the case, turn the latch and notice the plaque riveted under the handle.

0000013, it says.  I’m the thirteenth passenger and I wonder why.  A little finger of superstition pokes at me.  Lucky 13.  After I think about it for a moment, though, it’s probably just that my name is Mariann Eddy.  13 out of 40 passengers.

That’s going to change in a couple hours.  After AIF picks me up, I’ll never be Mariann Eddy again.  I’ll be Passenger 13, and then after that I’ll be Eva.  It’s what I picked—my middle name.  Dr. Brouse encouraged it.  He said, “You’ll be starting over in a way few people ever will.  I want you to leave your old life behind.”  I do, too.

At 5:45, I’m dressed in the last pair of clean clothes I own.  I carry the other stuff down to the curb.  It’s strange seeing those boxes and my sleeping bag sitting next to the trash can, but before I can think about how scary that is, a white van turns down the street and flashes its lights.  Along one side is a discrete logo for Agricultural Investment in the Future: the I in AIF is a slender tree with a tuft of leaves at the top.  I go back into the house and grab my purse and my steel case.  I leave the apartment key on the kitchen counter for the landlord and turn out the lights as I go.

Standing on the porch, I realize I’m not done.  I take my lip gloss out of my purse and put some on.  From my wallet, I take my AIF ID card.  Then I walk down to the curb, lift the lid off the trash can, and toss my purse into it.  Wallet, cell phone, everything.

As I cross the street to the van, I swing the steel case for Passenger 13 in one hand, like a kid.  The van driver leans across to open the door and the dome light comes on like a beacon.  I’m light as a feather.  Good-bye, Mariann Eddy.

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Show vs. Twitter

As part of a little writing project organized by Dee Garretson, I’m participating in a group of writers all discussing the same aspect of writing on the same day. Our topic for today is ye olde favorite: Show vs. Tell.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll say again that Tell is not inherently evil. Beginning writers have heard the admonishment to “show, don’t tell” so many times that they think it’s written in stone. It’s important to remember that Tell has its purpose and its place.

Tell can sum up years of quotidienne activities in a paragraph. Each morning for thirty-six years, she brushed her teeth furiously before eating breakfast.

Show allows us to linger over the details of those activities in a way that reveals character motivation. She attacked her teeth and gums with the nylon bristles, scouring away any hint of plaque. She was never satisfied unless the expelled foam was tinted pink against the sink’s porcelain. After brushing, she drank orange juice.

Tell can paint a minor character in a six-word brush-stroke. He was a fat, smelly greaseball.

Show provides us with the ephemera of gesture and body odor that would allow us to identify that minor character in a mid-novel line-up. Dried sweat rings rimed the underarms of his greasy t-shirt, which was stretched taut over his belly and stained with his last three meals.

Succeed vs. Fail

Succeed vs. Fail

Which brings me to Twitter. 140 characters to get across the import of what we thought on the bus to work in the morning.  140 characters to sketch out the strangers we share that ride with. Because of the limited space, I find most of my tweets are Tell. There’s simply not enough room to adequately Show. I often tweet about what I see at the gym, but how to convey the mysteries of my fellow gym patrons in 140 characters?

To the two guys at the water fountain beside the track: get a room. #gymtwit

It tells you the rough idea of what I saw–two guys being a bit too intimate with each other while getting a drink in front of me. What I can’t show you in 140 characters is the way the younger man’s pupils went wide with desire as he admired the bent neck of his running buddy. I need more than 140 characters to show you the older man caressing the other runner’s arm, skimming sweat with his blunt fingers, even as he bent his  knee to nudge the younger man’s leg, damp, crinkly hair rubbing against blond fuzz.

Often, the choice between Show and Tell is just that pragmatic–what do you have room for? In writing short stories particularly, if you’re shooting for under 2K words, and a scene of showing will push you over, but it’s not a scene that is crucial for the reader to see in detail, you sacrifice.

Conversely, if you’re shooting for 100K word novel and you’re coming up short, you can easily go back and fill in more Show to flesh out your story with sensory detail.

Sometimes it’s a matter of emphasis–showing conveys more importance. If we see the bloody toothpaste spat into the sink, it takes on weight. Show to emphasize, Tell to de-emphasize.

Other times, it’s a matter of pacing. Show can make a scene creep like a tortoise on a desert highway, as the narrator lavishes attention on every gesture, every sensation, every play of light on the draperies. Tell can make a scene fly by so quickly we later forget it, with no sensory details to pin it to.

For all these reasons, it’s important to be comfortable and adept at using both Show and Tell. If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? So be sure you have more than a hammer in your writing toolbox.

To see what others had to say about Show vs. Tell, please visit their blogs:

Ink (Tracey Martin)

Blond (Gretchen McNeil)

Tas (K.A. Stewart)

Wendy (Wendy Cebula)

Sunna (Amy Bai)

Melia (Dee Garretson)

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Back by popular demand: more totally random crap from my writing files. Okay, fine. There was no demand for random crap, but it’s what I’ve got. This is a scrap from a historical that’s been put on a back burner about a dozen times. The pleasures of research have also slowed down forward progress, but I still like the story idea. Someday I’ll get back to it.

***

The woman who answered the row house door was poisoned on gin, her teeth rotted out, her eyes sunk in their sockets.  Not long for the world if she went on drinking that way.

“Good day to you, ma’am,” I said and let a schilling wink between my fingers for a moment.  Her rheumy eyes caught the gesture and went bright even under their haze of gin.  Not too far gone to want a coin.

“Mrs. Jakes sent you from ’round the corner?” she said. “It’ll cost you a deal more’n that bit of silver.  My daughter’s a virgin.  God’s truth she is.  Ne’er been touched by a man.  Not e’en her own pa.”

She cracked a toothless smile at me, making me wonder if she was too far gone to do business with.  Then it occurred to me she was expecting someone and didn’t know I wasn’t him.  I simply needed to play the role to get what I wanted.

“How much?”

“A virgin, I swear it.  Milky white skin, innocent.  Only fifteen,” she leered.

Fifteen and still a virgin.  An unlikely proposition in that neighborhood.

“What’s your price then?”

“A gentleman like you,” she hinted.  To her, I suppose, I was a gentleman.  Clean and dressed in fine clothes, but that was all a costume.  A thing I’d learnt to put on.  “A crown, sir.  Never been with a man, she hasn’t.”

Highway robbery unless the girl was pretty and truly a virgin, and that was unlikely.  A shocking expense, too, when all I wanted was information.

“The girl—her room is above stairs?  Does it face the street or the mews?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, gone suspicious of me that quickly.  It was a fool thing to say, a beginner’s mistake.  “What’s that to you?”

“Only that I should like to know the prospect from the room,” I said in my blandest dandy voice, the one I’d learnt from Robert Letour before he hanged at Newgate.

She shrugged and said, “To the street, an’ it please you, sir.”

“A crown it is,” I said.  “You’ll have the first half now, but the second after I’ve satisfied myself that she is as innocent as you say.”

With any luck I’d bluff my way out of paying the second half crown and she seemed to fear that, too.  When I produced the two coins, held them up, one in each hand between my thumb and finger, she hesitated, eyes glowing with desperation.  She was terribly thirsty.

I presented her with the half crown in my left hand and returned the second to my right pocket, to feel the reassuring presence of my pistol under my coat.

“This way, sir,” she said.

The house was worse than the street.  The only window on the first floor was covered with greased paper and in that foul darkness the stink of unwashed flesh and gin and rotted food was like a blow to the face.  I gagged against it and kept my hand against my pistol.  In the reeking darkness, the old woman hesitated at the stairs until I feared an ambush, but she was only hesitating because the coin in her hand spoke of gin to her.  The time to walk me up the rickety stairs would keep her from it a moment longer than she liked.

“Up and to yer right, sir.  Just undo the latch and mind you don’t let her out.”

Kept prisoner then.  It didn’t surprise me, if the woman was pimping her.  I half-expected to be set upon in the narrow stairwell or at the landing, but I made it to the top unmolested.  From below, I heard the outer door opening and closing.  The old woman going out to the gin house.  To Mrs. Jakes, where she thought I had been sent from.

The upper door was closed with an iron latch, and when I slid it back, a quiet voice said, “Is that you?”

My Mary

My Mary

The girl was too lovely for that place.  Pale and thin, with chestnut hair and soft brown eyes.  Her cheeks flushed when she saw me and she stood up from her narrow bed, looking me up and down with wild eyes.  Abruptly, the fear dropped away and she smiled.

“Oh, you ain’t who I was expecting.”

“And who were you expecting?” I said.

“Her.  Or some scoundrel come to—to pay her.”

“I have paid her, but I don’t intend any assault on your honor.”

She laughed, cheeks going pinker, and sat down again on the bed.  “My honor?  Oh lord, you’ve learned a fine way to talk.”

“I was forced to deceive the woman below, but I shall be quite direct with you, Miss.  I am a representative for a gentleman investigating the disappearance of a young woman, whom I believe was recently in the house directly across from yours.  Directly across from your very room, I believe.  May I look out your window?”

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